The First Modern Painting

Matthew Israel
Feb 6, 2014 3:12PM

The exhibition of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) in 1863 at the Salon des Réfusés in Paris is characteristically regarded as the beginning of Modern Art.

Why? Though the style and ideas contained in the work had been gradually gaining influence in the preceding hundred years—in the work of artists like Jacques-Louis David, Gustave Courbet and J.M.W. Turner—Manet’s painting, more prominently than any other beforehand, announced a new era in art. Primarily, this was because it questioned two major accepted norms of traditional painting: that art should feature lofty themes and figures of historical importance and should present a scene according to classical perspective (i.e. so a painting was a convincing presentation of three-dimensional reality in two dimensions).

Let’s start by showing how Manet’s work rejected historical imagery. The models for the painting were two iconic Renaissance works—Giorgione’s Pastoral Concert (now attributed to Titian) and Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving after Raphael’s The Judgement of Paris. However, Manet used the two works to create a contemporary scene, featuring two male, fully-clothed men (who would be recognized by the contemporary crowd as students) hanging out in a park with two women. In the Renaissance works these women are goddesses and nymphs but in the Déjeuner, the women are not idealized and the woman in the foreground of the painting is clearly a contemporary woman, naked. This would have been considered very unusual at best and obscene at worst to the contemporary audience in France, especially coupled with the naked woman’s positioning, subtly entwined with the fully-clothed male students, as well as the picture’s allusion to sex. (Manet allegedly nicknamed this painting “la petite carée,” which can translate to “the foursome” in French). At the bottom left of the image there is a sensual still life with fruit and a bottle of alcohol, have both been spilled over; and parks at the time in Paris were well-known for being locations for prostitution, quite common in France at the time at all levels of society.

Manet’s presentation of contemporary figures and subjects realized the call of writer Charles Baudelaire, who in his 1859 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” asked for an art of modern life, modern subjects and a modernization of classical subject matter, such as the nude. Notably, Manet based the figures in the foreground on people he knew. The men are the sculptor Ferdinand Leenhoff and the other is one of Manet’s brothers—either Eugene or Gustave. The woman in the foreground of the image is Victorine Meurent, who posed for Manet’s Olympia, which was painted the same year.


The way in which Manet painted the Déjeuner—rather than its imagery—is what made it the most groundbreaking and modern. It questioned so many accepted notions about how a painting was supposed to be created. To begin with, look closely at the whole work and it becomes quickly apparent that Manet is unconcerned with creating the illusion of a real-life space, and furthermore, he seems to be in many places trying to purposefully rupture one’s sense of illusion by muddying the relationship between a figure and ground and flattening out parts of the image. Look, for example, at the students’ hand at the center of the picture and how it almost seems to be touching the hand of the woman, who is supposed to be in the background, but looks as if she is floating above him because the background has been flattened into the foreground. Look closer at the background woman: see how the space around her and behind her is sketchily-filled in to make it look flattened as well. Look at the back of the naked woman in the foreground and how the grass actually looks flat against her back, almost meshing with it, rather than behind clearly pictured as behind her.

Manet is also unconcerned with creating the illusion of depth in the figures he paints. In many areas of the work, he uses harsh contrasts to dissolve any sense of three-dimensionality. A commonly-cited example is the contrast between the shod and unshod foot of the man and woman at the center of the painting. Jules-Antoine Castagnary also noticed this effect. He explained at the time: “No detail is in its final, precise and rigorous form…I see fingers without bones and heads without skulls. I see sideburns painted on like two strips of black cloth glued on the cheeks.”

The overall flattening of the image makes one slowly realize that the different scenes present in the work—i.e. the still life at the bottom, the female nude, men in city dress, the bathing figure, a landscape—are actually not entirely connected, but almost separate images pasted (pastiched) into one. The still life in the front seems oddly included; the foursome at the middle don’t seem to be entirely in the woods but floating in front of it; the woman at the rear is almost in her own world. Our eyes and our minds try to bring these images together but the picture remains a combination of various works that cannot be resolved into one. Its coherence consistently falls apart.

Details of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass).

Critics have argued that the lack of depth and resulting emphasis on flatness was one of the most important attributes of the Déjeuner and core to the history of modernist painting. Clement Greenberg, arguably the most influential art critic of the second half of the twentieth century, is most famous for this argument. Greenberg argued that the “rationale” of modernist painting—like all the modernist arts (and in this thinking he was inspired by the writings of Immanuel Kant)—was to employ its own methods to criticize itself. For painting, according to Greenberg, this meant two things. First was a purification of painting of the effects of any other artistic mediums, but sculpture, theater, and literature primarily. The second aspect of painting’s critique of itself was a stress on the limitations that constitute the medium of painting. These limitations consisted of three things: the rectangular shape of the supports, the properties of pigment, and the flat surface of the support. The flatness of the support was the most important limitation modernism could critique, according to Greenberg, for flatness was unique to the medium of painting. In this way, according to Greenberg, historically “realistic, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art. Modernism [starting with Manet] used art to call attention to art.”

Read the next post in this series, about Paul Cézanne, who Pablo Picasso called “the father of us all.”

Matthew Israel